One of four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu lineage is a vessel of the Buddha’s teachings passed down through unbroken transmissions between master and disciple over the course of 900 years. The Indian Buddhist yogis Tilopa and Naropa were the first lineage masters of the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. It was Naropa’s disciple, Marpa, who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Later, Marpa’s disciple Milarepa became one of the most famous enlightened yogis of Tibet.

From Milarepa, the dharma transmissions passed to Gampopa. Gampopa’s primary disciples then branched out into four main Kagyu schools, and eight Kagyu subsets. One of the four main schools is the Karma Kagyu, which was founded by the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Since Dusum Khyenpa’s time, the Karma Kagyu School has continued through 16 successive Karmapas up to the present day.

The other three main Kagyu schools have ceased to exist; but their teachings still continue under eight Kagyu subsets (Drigung, Taklung, Trophu, Drugpa, Yamzang, Shugseb, Martsang, and Yerpa,)[1] and within the Karma Kagyu.

In 1959, in response to the impending communist invasion of Tibet, the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje left Tsurphu Monastery, his seat monastery in East Tibet. He traveled with his followers to Sikkim, a northern state in India. There, he built Rumtek Monastery, which he established as his new seat outside of Tibet.

In 1961, the 16th Karmapa established a legal administrative body, or “labrang”, to oversee his monasteries and assets, called the Karmapa Charitable Trust (or KCT). The labrang system is a time-honoured tradition in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Every spiritual teacher has the right to manage his affairs through his own autonomous administration. The 16th Karmapa personally appointed trustees to the KCT, whose duties would include managing Karmapa’s legacy in the interregnum after his death. They would also decide whom to accept as the next Karmapa.

In November of 1981, the 16th Karmapa passed away. The personally appointed trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust then took on the legal responsibility of managing his legacy and waited for their teacher’s return as the 17th Karmapa.

The historical authentication of Karmapa

Historically, the reincarnation of a deceased spiritual master (or tulku) is confirmed by another qualified spiritual master of the same school. In the case of the Karma Kagyu, this master is usually the highest living lineage holder of the Karma Kagyu, or of another Kagyu School (such as Drugpa Kagyu, for instance). As stated, Karmapa’s own labrang must also accept the new Karmapa before he can be officially enthroned.

The first master to reincarnate continuously, life after life, while keeping the same identity, was the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110-1193). Before he died, the 1st Karmapa left brief oral instructions with three separate disciples concerning his next reincarnation. After his death, this first ever tulku declared himself to be the reincarnation of Dusum Khyenpa. The circumstances of his arrival corresponded to the oral instructions previously given. In addition, the 1st Karmapa’s teacher Pomdrakpa saw him in a vision, and subsequently confirmed that Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa had indeed returned as Karma Pakshi, the 2nd Karmapa (1204-1283).

When the 2nd Karmapa was approaching the end of his life, he predicted that he would come back in his next life in eastern Tibet. The 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, declared himself the reincarnation of Karma Pakshi. Thus, a precedent was established for a Karmapa reincarnate to declare himself at a very young age, as did the 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa and many later Karmapas. Like the 1st Karmapa, Karma Pakshi did not leave any written description of his next rebirth, although later Karmapas would occasionally do so. However, whether instructions about his next rebirth were given orally or in writing, each reincarnated Karmapa would reveal his identity through special abilities.

Understandably, the process of recognizing a tulku can be a controversial one. An example of this is the case of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.

After the death of the 15th Karmapa, a very powerful Gelugpa government minister named Lungshawa wanted to have his son recognized as the reincarnation of Karmapa. Lungshawa was dedicated to modernizing Tibet. He thought that if his son were a Karmapa, it would facilitate his plans for Tibet’s north-western and eastern regions, whose inhabitants were followers of the Karma Kagyu School. H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama was subsequently persuaded to confirm Lungshawa’s son as the 16th Karmapa. However, the 15th Karmapa’s labrang (the Tsurphu monastery administration) did not accept this recognition, stating that “the son of this aristocrat is not the reincarnation of the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa Khachup Dorje.”

The conflict was resolved by a prediction letter, which the 15th Karmapa had given to his close disciple, Jampal Tsultrim. For reasons unknown, Jampal had kept the letter secret at first, but finally revealed its contents. This led to the recognition of the authentic 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.

It is not unheard of for more than one candidate to be recognized by different spiritual masters as a potential tulku. In these cases, the late master’s labrang decides which candidate to accept as the genuine reincarnation. This decision is usually based on written or oral evidence left behind by the master, and/or special abilities exhibited by the candidate, as described in the above mentioned case.

But controversies are not always settled so easily. In 1992, two Karma Kagyu lamas – Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches – recognized Karmapa Ogyen Trinley as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa. In support of their declaration, Situ Rinpoche produced a letter allegedly written by the 16th Karmapa, which contained information about his successor.

However, two other rinpoches – the current Shamarpa and Jamgon Rinpoche – expressed their doubts about the authenticity of the prediction letter. Shamarpa asked that the letter be scientifically dated, but Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches refused to do so.

Instead, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches obtained the cooperation of the Chinese government to have their candidate enthroned as the new Karmapa. This constituted China’s first ever appointment of a tulku. They also persuaded the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to confirm their candidate as the 17th Karmapa.

Shamarpa objected to this course of action, stating that any governmental involvement in ascertaining the identity of the 17th Karmapa would establish a dangerous new precedent. In his view, it would essentially mean that the power to recognize a Karmapa would henceforth be in the hands of politicians. Once that power had fallen into the political arena, the authenticity of the Karma Kagyu lineage would be lost.

To date, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches have not explained why they invited the Chinese government to intervene in a religious matter. Shamarpa does not accept the two rinpoches’ candidate to this day. As well, Karmapa’s administration, the KCT, also refused to accept the candidate because physical evidence in Situ’s prediction letter called its authenticity into question. The letterhead, the handwriting, the spelling and the many grammatical mistakes in the letter were out of line with the appearance of other writings by the 16th Karmapa. 

In August of 1993, with the help of local Sikkimese state politicians and the Sikkim state police, Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches staged a violent takeover of Rumtek Monastery, the seat of Karmapa. Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches’ people have occupied Rumtek ever since. Due to this incident, a legal suit has been brought against Gyaltsap Rinpoche and the Sikkim state officials so that Rumtek could be returned to its rightful administration. (Situ Rinpoche was not named in the suit because he had been banned from entering India when it was filed.)

In 2004, the courts in India ruled that only the Karmapa Charitable Trust – not the two rinpoches – has the legal authority to manage Karmapa’s estate, which includes Rumtek Monastery. Evidence given in court also proved that Sikkim State officials and police accepted bribes in exchange for their participation in the takeover.[2] The court case continues today.

All the trustees of the Karmapa Charitable Trust as well as the monks who were residents of Rumtek Monastery stand behind Shamarpa.[3] In their view, the two rinpoches are in the wrong. In March of 1994, Shamar Rinpoche recognized and enthroned the 17th Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje with the acceptance of the Karmapa Charitable Trust and of the Rumtek administration.

Today, there are two 17th Karmapas.

Part One: On Prophecies and Visions

To help sort out the competing claims in the current controversy, I believe that “an unbiased voice” can be found in the past – namely, the prophetic words of previous Karmapas.

Karmapa’s followers believe he is a great bodhisattva, whose mind is synonymous with clarity and wisdom. Many also believe that Karmapa knew such a controversy would arise. Indeed, as the respected Gelugpa scholar Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen points out in Part One, the 5th Karmapa Dezhin Shegpa (1384-1415) and the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981) both prophesied a rift within the Karma Kagyu.

Here are the words of the 16th Karmapa:

“In its heart, the duck relied on the lake
but the shameless lake brought ice, its partner, and became sealed.”

At first glance, these words may seem like lines from a poem and nothing more. However, Geshe’s insight into the passages paints a different picture. Could the 16th Karmapa be referring here to a betrayal that would keep him away from his home base at Rumtek Monastery?

Another powerful message is found in a prophecy of the 5th Karmapa. He predicted that someone with the name “natha” would come close to obliterating the Karma Kagyu lineage and doctrines.

A great deal of confusion has arisen from the translation of the word natha. Situ Rinpoche’s supporters have suggested it means “nephew,” in order to implicate Shamarpa, who is the nephew of the 16th Karmapa. Tibetan scholars usually write in Sanskrit and/or Tibetan; “natha” does not mean nephew in either of these languages – nor, indeed, in any language I have come across. In fact, “natha” is a Sanskrit word whose Tibetan equivalent is “gon”. As it happens, part of Situ Rinpoche’s full Tibetan name is Jam-gon. A detailed explanation of this word is given at the end of Chapter 1, which includes the definition of “natha” found in Sarat Chandra Das Tibetan-English Dictionary.

When I began this project, I wanted to understand what the previous Karmapas had foretold. I set out to obtain copies of the original Tibetan books, or “pechas”. I then worked together with a group of Tibetan translators to translate them into English. It was at this time that it came to my attention that Geshe had analyzed the Karmapa prophecies and written his commentaries in Tibetan explaining their meaning. Geshe-la[4] has an excellent command of classical Tibetan; his explanations are thus based on a precise understanding of the Karmapas’ words. To say that it caught my interest would be an understatement. I am grateful to my translators, who obtained Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen’s consent to have his commentaries translated and edited for this book. It is important that the Karmapas’ words be understood in the proper context in order to put the current controversy in perspective.

As I was finalizing the writing of this book in March of 2008, two books of predictions by Guru Rinpoche were submitted to Karmapa’s library in Kalimpong. In one of them is a prediction, which is by far the most convincing prophecy, as it actually names three individuals who are currently embroiled in the 17th Karmapa’s dispute. A precise translation of this prediction is presented in Chapter 4 along with Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen’s explanation on its meaning, as well as his interpretation on the identities of the three individuals.

Part Two: Clarification of History

Not long ago, I worked for the current Shamarpa on his translation of a biography of the 10th Karmapa (17th century) in English.[5] Shamarpa’s study was filled with Tibetan pechas.[6] He compiled extensive passages from at least six or seven Tibetan classics and translated them for this comprehensive biography. As a result of my work on this project, I came to be familiar with Tibetan history during the lifetime of the 6th Shamarpa.

At that time, I was reading Lea Terhune’s book, Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation, in which she claims that the 6th and the 10th Shamarpas were responsible for the political turmoil in Tibet’s past. Her claims contradict bona fide Tibetan sources such as those I found in Shamarpa’s study. Unfortunately, those Tibetan sources are not available in English. As to Terhune’s source that is published in English (in an abridged form) – W.D. Shakabpa’s Tibet: A Political History  Terhune actually misquotes it. Scholars and Tibetan historians may have access to the repositories of history; but what of the non-Tibetan reader? Even those who question Terhune’s claims would be unable to investigate further without the aid of a translator.

In Terhune’s book, the integrity and history of the Karma Kagyu is compromised. This follows from the 5th Karmapa’s predictions. Terhune is Situ Rinpoche’s disciple, and her book appears very much to be a campaign to discredit the institution of Shamarpa. At the same time, it gives greater credence to Situ Rinpoche’s claims to authority in enthroning the 17th Karmapa. Her dubious scholarship is therefore relevant not only because it validates the 5th Karmapa’s predictions, but also because it sheds further light on the controversy itself.

I would like to make available the facts of history that were at my fingertips. As Artemus Ward once wrote, “It ain’t so much the things that we don’t know that gets us into trouble. It’s the things that we do know that just ain’t so.” I asked Shamar Rinpoche for permission to quote excerpts from his translations of the Tibetan classics, in order to present exactly what “just ain’t so.”

In Part Two, I present several examples from Terhune’s book that are at odds with recorded history, including her misquote of Shakabpa. I also provide translated excerpts from relevant Tibetan sources as a point of comparison. I hope that the examples I have selected will put Terhune’s account in perspective.

Part Three: Karmapa’s Administration at Risk

In Part Three, the present Shamarpa recounts the divisive forces that undermined the authority of Karmapa’s administration. He wishes to have his account published while the witnesses are still alive. He explains how the regency of the four rinpoches was first formed, and how it was dissolved. He also describes the actions of people who contributed to the erosion of the public’s trust in him, and their attempts to control the KCT. He discloses what was discussed in the closed meetings of the four rinpoches on the search committee for the 17th Karmapa, including how Situ Rinpoche first presented his prediction letter. Finally, Shamarpa tells of his last meeting with Jamgon Rinpoche just days before the latter was tragically killed in a car crash. These accounts, backed up for the most part by live witnesses, are a window on what happened in Rumtek after the 16th Karmapa passed away, and before Situ Rinpoche’s candidate was enthroned as the 17th Karmapa in Tibet, China.

Shamarpa’s accounts expose the designs on Karmapa’s administration which in effect threatened the autonomy of Karmapa’s home base – his seat monastery and administration. They were perhaps the precursors to a later partnership “with ice” that would freeze up the duck’s home as forewarned by the 16th Karmapa.

In Karmapa: the Politics of Reincarnation, Lea Terhune claims that Topga Rinpoche sold the Tashi Choling Monastery to pay his own debts. The facts do not support her claims, however. In Chapter 26, Shamarpa explains why Tashi Choling had to be sold back to Bhutan; his account is fully backed by live witnesses, copies of the Karmapa Charitable Trust’s documents, as well as by letters from the Government of Bhutan.

Part Four: The 17th Karmapa Controversy

Part Four presents accounts that are relevant to the current controversy of the two 17th Karmapas. They describe the backgrounds of key partners of Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches (including Akong Tulku and Thrangu Rinpoche) according to the people who lived in Rumtek and who were close to the 16th Karmapa. The accounts also describe how the actions of Situ Rinpoche and his partners collectively led to the takeover of the seat monastery of Karmapa in August of 1993.

It was in 1992 that Situ Rinpoche produced a controversial prediction letter claimed to have been written by the 16th Karmapa, giving details concerning his next rebirth. Situ Rinpoche used it to justify his candidate as the 17th Karmapa. I have learned that Topga Rinpoche, the late General Secretary of the Karmapa Charitable Trust, had written a sharp critique of the prediction letter produced by Situ Rinpoche. Topga Rinpoche’s critique is now well known within Tibetan academia. In Chapter 28, I present the first ever English translation of that critique. As well, I present a word-for-word translation of the prediction letter itself, which meticulously follows correct Tibetan grammar. I invite the reader to compare it against the interpretation offered by Situ Rinpoche’s disciple, Michele Martin.

In his writings, Topga Rinpoche once referred to the three rinpoches (Situ, Gyaltsap, and Jamgon) as “heart sons.” It was meant as a sarcastic comment. In Chapter 29, Shamarpa explains that the term “heart sons” actually has no relevance or significance in the Karma Kagyu tradition. He asks that the term not be used within the Karma Kagyu as it gives the wrong connotation, which might confuse the public.

As mentioned, Terhune’s book presented some curious details worth looking into. Her book, as well as three others – Music in the Sky by Michele Martin (Snow Lion, 2003), The Dance of 17 Lives by Mick Brown (Bloomsbury, 2004) and Wrestling the Dragon by Gaby Naher (Rider, 2004) – presented the Karmapa controversy largely from the point of view of Situ Rinpoche’s side. As I was working on the English translations of Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen’s commentaries, I also began making inquiries to obtain the perspective of the residents of Rumtek Monastery and its lay community.

When I approached KCT and Karmapa’s administration for their side of the story, they appointed Dawa Tsering as their spokesperson. They directed him to provide me with the necessary information, proof and explanations. Dawa Tsering explained that the KCT had gathered legal documents, affidavits, letters, cassette tapes, and eye-witness reports to support their court case to gain back Rumtek Monastery. Dawa assured me that his testimony and accounts are all backed up by these materials, most of which had been presented in court.

In August of 1993, Situ Rinpoche, Gyaltsap Rinpoche and their people took over Rumtek Monastery by force. Their illegal actions are being challenged in the courts of India. A final court decision will hopefully be delivered soon. In Chapter 33, “A Red Herring,” I present an analytical report of the attack on Rumtek based on evidence gathered by Karmapa’s administration. Dawa Tsering is my source for this account, as well as the information presented in Chapter 38, “The Dust Settles.” As mentioned, Dawa’s version of events is supported by court testimony, documents from the Indian government, newspaper reports, audio recordings, and the testimony of eyewitnesses who are alive today.

With Rumtek Monastery in the hands of Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches’ people, the KCT and Karmapa’s administration have good reason to fear that priceless religious objects, which the 16th Karmapa brought with him in exile, may have been stolen. The famous “Black Crown or Vajra Crown” of the Karmapas is a case in point. Recent publications authored by Terhune and Brown cited above have cast doubt over whether the 16th Karmapa brought the crown with him when he left Tibet, as he claimed. Chapter 34 and 35 address those concerns regarding objects belonging to the 16th Karmapa kept at Rumtek including his crown.

Karma is infallible. Broadly speaking, it is the law of action and result. Once karma is created, its result is inevitable. In Chapter 36, Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen explains the concept of “limitless negative karma,” which is the worst negative act according to the Buddha. He analyzes the actions of Situ and Gyaltsap Rinpoches and their partners, and discusses whether they have committed such negative acts.

Some of the claims made in Terhune’s book are now being challenged in a defamation suit. When the court in India asked for proof to substantiate Terhune’s claims, it received two letters. One was written by the noted American Buddhist, Professor Robert Thurman. The other was a letter from the late Jamgon Rinpoche to Lea Terhune, asking her to purchase an air-ticket for him. Chapter 37 presents both of these letters, and the reader is invited to judge their relevancy to the case at hand. I have also included an open letter from Shamarpa in response to Professor Thurman’s letter.

The translations

Certain key passages from the Karmapa Prophecies have been excerpted and explained by Geshe Dawa Gyaltsen in Part One of this book. As well, in Chapter 28, the entire prediction letter produced by Situ Rinpoche is examined by Topga Rinpoche. To help the reader follow these analyses, translations of those specific selections are provided.

The Tibetan language is structurally different from the English language. Ideally, a proper translation should precisely follow correct Tibetan grammar and syntax as found in the original writing. English translations of Tibetan work sometimes embellish or reinterpret Tibetan words, such that the original meaning is altered. Readers who do not know Tibetan obviously would never know this. To make the English translations of the specific selections in this book as transparent as possible, they are presented in this format: the first is an English transliteration of the Tibetan words; followed by a straight, word-for-word translation; and then a precise translation of the meaning and grammar of the Tibetan passage as it is written. For some of the more difficult terms, our group of translators consulted Shamar Rinpoche.

I have also obtained the 5th Dalai Lama’s hierarchy of lamas in Tibetan, a 17th century ranking order of lamas. With the help of Lama Jampa Gyaltsen, we have translated it into English for the first time. The Tibetan scripts along with its full English translation may be found in Appendix A-7.

The Karmapa prophecies are expressed through simple, poetic imagery, yet they can be quite precise. As a result of my work on this book, I have gained a greater appreciation of the style and meaning of Tibetan Buddhist prophecies. I hope the translations will prove useful for students, translators, and scholars alike in their research on the subject of Buddhist prophecies. But more importantly, I hope that the accounts presented in this book offer a window into aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan thought and culture that have not been made available before.


[1]Douglas, Nik and Meryl White. Karmapa: The Black Hat Lama of Tibet. London: Luzac, 1976.

[2] The court decisions are included in Appendix C.

[3] The exceptions are about 40 monks hired by Situ Rinpoche’s side to enroll as students of the Sri Nalanda Institute at Rumtek.

[4] Tibetans add “la” to the end of a title or name to show respect.

[5] This work will be published at a later date.

[6] Books